The Truth About False Accusations

The truth of sexual violence has two sides.  There are epidemic levels of violence in America. And some people make false claims for perceived personal gain. Both are true and neither of these can be ignored. Often when I talk to somebody about the latest allegation in the headlines, they respond with a story about some guy whose life was ruined by a false accusation—as if one person’s reality invalidates that of another. Rape culture and the nature of sexual violence are far too complex to be summed up by believing that every person who comes forth with an allegation is either telling the truth or is maliciously lying. The much messier truth lies in between these extremes.  We live in a country in which some routinely violent men are admired by their peers, while some non-violent men unjustly spend years behind bars or in infamy. We have to elevate our awareness and our conversation to match the complexity of these issues.

Those who complain about the potential for abuse of sexual assault allegations are not wrong.  Some complainants exaggerate or outright falsify their claims.  Juries and judges cannot be wholly separated from the prejudices that they hold.  And the court of public opinion often makes up its mind irrespective of what a judicial body says.  But couldn’t we say the same things about every crime? While our judicial processes are imperfect across the board, sexual violence is the most likely baby to get tossed out when we examine the dirty bath water of the criminal justice system. One could argue that sexual violence is especially prone to false accusations and their effects because the critical element of consent cannot be found on a crime scene.  Hard and fast “evidence” is hard to come by and allegations often come down to one person’s testimony against another’s.  But demanding a flawless criminal justice system before we take allegations seriously is to ignore very real violence that takes place everyday. People have the right to seek justice for acts committed against them even if we haven’t figured out how to perfectly process accusations and we seem to understand this just fine with every other crime.

Let’s say you want to help create a world where people who make false accusations are demonized. A world where people have to think hard about the merits of a claim of victimization before they step forward.  A world where claims are vigorously pulled apart and scrutinized.  But haven’t we already achieved all of that?

If you think that we live in a world where one can lightly bring forth an accusation, then you haven’t been paying attention.  Legitimate survivors of atrocious behaviors routinely report their fears of reprisal and scrutiny as keeping them from reporting.  We’ve created a dynamic where only those with the strongest courage and convictions dare speak up. And, judging by incidence reports, we have a long way to go before those who might engage in non-consensual sexual activities have a similar healthy fear to make them think twice about acting inappropriately.

As an African-American male raised in a country where not so long ago a mere accusation of rape led to lynching, I know that the fear of false accusations comes from a very natural place.  I know that false accusations are real and that they have power.  It’s just that our intense fear of them has turned many of us away from challenging violence that also deserves our resistance.

There are few human institutions, if any, that people cannot abuse for personal gain.  That’s just the way it is and the way it’s always been.  But we cannot allow the very real potential for abuse to prevent us from taking a stand against very real violence that affects hundreds of thousands of Americans.  Conventional wisdom says that we have to choose between challenging violence or false accusations. But this choice is as false as the accusations so many people rail against.  We are perfectly capable of standing against injustice in all of its forms.